A lot of vitriol was slung in the election last month. Hateful comments were made about both of the candidates, which is what politicians sign up for these days in a world of clickbait and reality TV. But after the election, several posts started making the rounds with people discussing whether Barron Trump might be autistic. The speculation seemed invasive. He’s a 10-year-old child who was rarely in the limelight during the election. Some of the comments to these posts went beyond an invasion of privacy and into the realm of hateful celebrity gossip.
Despite being a vocal Clinton supporter, I found myself recoiling from these threads in disgust. When did it become OK to discuss someone else’s child? When did we start accepting that it was all right to invade the privacy of children simply because of who their parents happen to be?
It’s wrong and we all know it.
The tabloids have done it for decades, but it feels like the rise of social media has made everyone—from Beyoncé and Jay Z’s adorable daughter Blue Ivy to the children of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to Barron Trump—a target for scrutiny, judgment and, yes, insults. It’s wrong and we all know it, but somehow it seems innocuous when a friend shares a critical piece and we choose to comment with something amusing or scathing. We don’t know these people. They’re celebrities in the limelight, right? But the kids never signed up for any of this. The kids are entitled to be just that—kids—and be as anonymous as possible for as long as possible.
As a writer, I’m used to both rejection and criticism of my work. “Don’t read the comments. Never read the comments,” is something we writers often tell each other when we publish a controversial or dissenting piece. But of course we read the comments. It's human nature to wonder what people are saying about us. I’ve written about formula-feeding my babies and been called selfish and stupid. I’ve written about being an older mom and been called selfish (and, yes, stupid). Do the comments bother me? No. I have become immune to the criticisms of strangers, otherwise I would never write another word. But there is one thing that will always bother me, something I cannot build up an immunity to, something that brings out rage and sorrow and helplessness: the criticism of my children.
The first time it happened, I had used a picture of my oldest son on a parenting piece I’d written. Several friends shared the piece on social media, with a few friends and strangers commenting on my cute kid. Because I was able to see who had publicly shared the piece, I was able to read comments of people I didn’t know. While most of them were about my writing (good, bad and otherwise), someone commented on the picture of my son. “Kind of an ugly little potato, isn’t he?”
I wish we could all recognize that this kind of boundary-breaking, especially as it applies to children, is akin to bullying.
I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. I have been called a lousy writer, a hack and a bunch of things I don’t even want to see in print. None of it had the same effect on me as having someone say my baby—my baby!—was ugly. Never mind that they didn't know it was my baby, or what his name is or where we live. The hate still hurt and made me want to punch something.
And so, every time I see an article or a meme or tweet about a celebrity’s child, I ignore it or, in particularly egregious situations, I’ll say that it’s wrong. But I don’t know that I’m changing anyone’s mind. It's social media, after all. Everyone is fair game because there are no rules. And the media hasn't helped that by blurring their own journalistic boundaries.
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I didn’t indulge in celebrity child gossip before my run-in with an insulting comment about my own child, but I don’t think I paid too much attention when other people did it. I do now. And it makes me angry. I wish we could all agree, as a collective, that children—of celebrities or strangers—are off limits. I wish we could all recognize that this kind of boundary-breaking, especially as it applies to children, is akin to bullying.
The internet is infinite, and posts made today about a baby, children dealing with their celebrity parents' divorce or a young man who may or may not be autistic, will still be around when those children are grown. They will read and see what was said about them. And that should make all of us feel a little bit ashamed, don’t you think?